Photo Credit: Jennie
"Every time I make a new painting or poem, I
faithfully record its birth by placing its picture
in an album or its title in my diary. At the end of
the year, I add up the new works I have made. It is
a number that matters, but today I will question its
authority over me. Is producing new work the most
important measure of my claim to being a visual artist/writer?
Judy's Journal, March 2008
Circling Back to a Persistent Concern: Report from the Field
Making new work is the juice of an artist/writer's life. This
is an old conclusion made fresh after many months making new paintings,
but not producing any new poems. What have I been doing with myself?
A look back at this year's Judy's Journals offers a partial answer:
revising my poetry manuscript (July), preparing for a solo art
exhibit (April), reading art history books (September), immersing
myself in a new series of paintings (August), and finishing production
of one hundred hand-made artist's books, which until September
took two weeks out of each month (February).
Although I work every day at my writing, no new poem has emerged.
I read others' poetry every day, but have written no new poem.
I jot in my journal, but no new poem rises to meet me.
Not that my muse hasn't been active all these months. She has
placed me in hundreds of situations that could be transformed
into new poems: stopping me cold during a news report, or replaying
someone's comment in my head until I find myself saying, "I
need to write about this," or having me read a poem and say,
"This narrative is similar to a poem I have been thinking
about writing, but haven't.
The root of the problem could be this: on only a
few (unsuccessful) occasions have I sat down and said, "I
will not get up until I have connected with a new poem."
Donald M. Murray, my teacher and constant writing presence, gave
his students a laminated card that has on the front, in large
NULLA DIES SINE LINEA
Write first each day
Complete one writing task every morning
Know tomorrow's task today
On the back are about 15 quotations from writers
about their work ethic. The first one is from Flannery O'Connor:
"Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before
a piece of paper. Many times I just sit for three hours with no
ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: If an idea does come
between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it." True to his work
ethic, Murray's habit of collecting writers' process statements
evolved into Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers (Heinemann).
The Power of the Deadline
Painting or writing? Round and round I go, running my muse ragged.
What will it be today? Almost eleven years of making that decision
have taught me this: deadlines definitely help. They can be self-imposed
(fourteen paintings should be enough of a body of work for this
theme; I need to send five poems to a journal by the end of the
month) or other-imposed (I need to prepare for that exhibition
meeting; a deadline for submissions for a particular journal is
The Need for Community
What will it be today, painting or writing? There is another answer:
community. I define the term in this way: making the effort to
stay connected with artists and writers, living or dead. It seems
easy to do: Attend an artist's talk (the Museum of Fine Arts/Boston
- Rachel Whiteread, sculptor) or an exhibit on Georges Rouault
(McMullen Museum of Art - Boston College). For a Worcester poet,
there is no shortage of local riches. Whenever I attend or participate
in poetry readings, I feel the power of community. Belonging to
a small response group whose members are trust-worthy and constant
One year ago, I stopped being part of a monthly poetry response
group that had met for seven years. I thought that I needed a
break. Two months ago, when I rejoined the group, I suggested
that we reestablish our ties by discussing and critiquing poems
by others. The members graciously agreed. My real reason for making
the suggestion? I was filled with anxiety that my poetry muse
had deserted me permanently, and that I would embarrass myself
and waste my group's time. For months, I had not gotten the buzz,
the lost in the word, the "in the groove" feeling when
I was composing a poem.
As I prepared for the second meeting, it was time to confront
the muse head-on. In September, I had attended a poetry group
in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The host, Tony Hoagland, gave us
a series of poems by David Lehman and told us to choose one his
first lines to begin a freewrite. The muse remained cold and distanced.
Nothing I wrote warmed to an "I could be a poem" temperature.
At home, I read C.K. Williams and Wislawa Szymborska for inspiration.
A week passed. Nothing. I brought the Tony Hoagland writing suggestion
to my response group. I tried drafting a poem for the next few
weeks. Nothing happened.
I kept trying. I had to. The group was meeting soon. One day
last week, those images and narratives my muse had been offering
me clicked. Altering one of Lehman's first lines and using it
in repetition, I wrote about the TV news story that I couldn't
forget, a casual observation of a man on a train station platform,
and a series of related incidents that had happened at the gym.
It was a poem. I felt the buzz, I was lost in the word, and I
felt that groove thing once again.
In this case, it was the dual effect of an enforced deadline
coupled with meeting with my poetry group that brought me back
to writing a poem. It worked this time. Who knows what it will
take the next time I spiral into a sustained slump?
Have you ever been in a writing slump? How do you pull yourself
out and get on with the work? Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org